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Outside: The Culling

Private mule deer terrain in Montana

Written by Greg Thomas  
Illustrated by Fred Thomas  
January 2011


I'm not sure whether mule deer hunting or commercial fishing defined my work ethic. I do know that each endeavor — scouring the remote alpine basins of Washington’s jagged Cascade Mountains and commercial fishing in Alaska’s rugged North Pacific — offered the greatest mental and physical challenges of my life and makes this position of punching keys for a living seem pretty cush.

That history also makes me suspect when people explain how difficult their work is. That critique started when I was 16, working in an Alaskan cannery, and friends explained the physical burdens of their summer jobs flipping burgers or caddying on north Seattle’s private clubs. In response, I could only laugh. Similarly, when they barked about mammoth beat-downs while skiing at Steven’s Pass I just shook my head in disgust. Without having climbed to the top of the Cascade crest, without scaling cliffs and bushwhacking through wet forests while shouldering a pack of mule deer appendages and a trophy rack, without reaching a truck after dark having willed each step for the past three miles ... without having gone through any of that they didn’t have a proper interpretation of what wet, cold, scared, and miserable could be. Maybe that’s why my guided mule deer hunt in central Montana’s Smith River country was so enjoyable.

You see, two seasons ago, I was invited to hunt mule deer with Joe Coogan, host of a TV show called “Benelli On Assignment,” produced by the Missoula, Montana-based Warm Springs Productions. Coogan has hunted big game animals around the world, part of that experience earned as a professional hunter in Tanzania, East Africa. He currently holds the brand marketing manager position for Benelli USA and handles public relations, copy writing, media events and trade show duties. He also gets to host “Benelli On Assignment” and brings noted outdoor writers and photographers into the field with him. Basically, Coogan gets to hunt for a living and he does so in some pretty killer locations.

I joined Coogan during mid-November with access to a massive patch of private turf, ours alone to hunt during the peak of the deer rut. Part of the appeal, naturally, was to hunt mule deer, which are my favorite western big game animal. In addition, however, I’ve aspired to host a TV show and this would be my initial exposure to the outdoors film world. I’d heard horror stories about big egos and setup shots, of blown stalks and once-in-a-lifetime trophies that got away when a cameraman hissed, “Don’t shoot! I can’t see it!” I wondered: What would Coogan be like? Would this resemble the fair-chase hunting that I was raised with? And, provided it was a fair-chase, upstanding hunt, which I expected it to be, would I perform in front of the camera? Would I be strong and say, “No, I can’t take that shot,” even if the host and cameramen were saying, “It’s now or never?” And, if it were a good shot, would I handle the pressure? I’m prone to buck fever, which is an unscientific condition that makes hunters go mad, to the extent, in some cases, of hyperventilation and the unplanned, uniform ejection of all of a hunter’s rifle cartridges before a shot is ever fired. If I got the fever, would they show that on TV?

Those were some thoughts as I drove from my former home in Ennis to White Sulphur Springs and, eventually, to the parking lot at a grand, three-story hunting lodge located in what I would describe as the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, the middle of nowhere, wherever it is found in the West, is prime mule deer country and this turf, a mix of open grassy parks, brushy draws, pine tree laden ridges and snowy, timbered mountain tops, fit the bill. After shaking Coogan’s hand I was ushered to the barn where the host showed me an elk he’d taken the day prior, a massive beast that had seven points on each of its antlers. I quickly noted that the carcass contained only two bullet holes, each placed right in the boiler room, so to speak, exactly where they needed to be for a humane kill.

That afternoon we were rolling around the property in a quad-cab Dodge Ram pickup truck, chains strapped to all tires, searching the high, snowy country for deer that fit the description of what Coogan and I were expected to take. Coogan, that lucky dude, could shoot any buck he desired. Because deer numbers are very high on the property, and because the landowner would like to promote the health of the deer herd and its trophy potential, I was instructed to take a “cull deer,” a buck with an uneven number of points on each of its anglers, or a buck with three points on each side. Some things in life aren’t fair and I was thinking, What if two bucks are standing side-by-side and one is a giant four-by-four and one is a three-by-three and I just shoot the big one and say, “What, I killed the big one? I was aiming at a forkhorn. Sorry guys.

That first afternoon, I realized that this hunt wouldn’t resemble those painful expeditions that I endured in Washington’s Cascades. Instead, Coogan and I were chauffeured around the ranch on a labyrinth of old logging roads. Basically we stopped when good mule deer habitat was visible or when we spotted animals. And that was often — in fact, by dark we’d probably seen two dozen deer including a few nice bucks that I would have shot if not restricted by the “cull deer” requirement. Coogan could have taken a nice buck with four points on each of its antlers, but the guide suggested we’d see better heads and that prediction panned out.

Unlike the mule deer hunting trips that I’m used to — which means sleeping in the back of a truck or in a small tent way back in the mountains — we retreated from the hunting grounds to that massive lodge complete with two living rooms, a large kitchen, a wrap-around deck, a boot and clothes drying room, and log walls adorned with Ken Carlson originals. Football games played on the TV. That evening I climbed into a king-size bed and pulled a heavy comforter over me, saying, “I don’t think we’re in the Cascades anymore.”

The next morning we started driving at daybreak and quickly found deer moving around, just a few hundred yards from the lodge. We glassed them, decided to pass, and drove on. That set a pattern until just before noon when we spotted a big deer, with three points on one antler and maybe four on the other. Those antlers were super tall, plenty wide, and I felt the excitement build in my body. The guide, Dennis Rehse, said the buck matched the cull requirement so we quickly bailed out of the pickup. I placed a clip in the rifle, a Benelli R-1 in 30-06 caliber, then took a deep breath and said to myself, “Don’t blow this.”

Honestly, I felt some pressure to perform in front of the camera and tried to ignore that deer’s tall, heavy antlers. We sneaked uphill, toward the animal, which was now surrounded by a half-dozen does, and the cameraman and Coogan kept asking, “Do you have a shot?”
The answer was “yes,” but the buck was now skylined, meaning it was silhouetted at the top of the ridge and the landscape behind it, in the path of the bullet, was unknown. I turned to Coogan and said, “I can’t take a skylined shot. It’s not the right thing to do even if we know there’s nothing behind that hill.” And I was happy when Coogan said, “Yep, you’re right.”

We sneaked through the forest for a mile or more, trying to relocate that buck, but he’d blown over the side of the mountain or holed up in some super-thick timber.

What made the disappearance of that animal easy to take was the fact that there were more animals to be seen almost around every bend. In one place we actually saw two big four-by-four bucks that Coogan took a close look at. If it had been me, one of those bucks would have dropped, but Coogan is a seasoned hunter, knows patience is a virtue — especially if you want to take large-antlered animals — and he held fire. You don’t know how badly I wanted to ask, “Um, could I please shoot that buck?” but beggars can’t be choosers and I was feeling pretty fortunate just to be along. I’m a wildlife freak and already we’d seen hundreds of mule deer, a half-dozen big bull elk, a bobcat, a blue grouse, two coyotes, and some whitetail deer. To have felt slighted because I was only being allowed to shoot a cull buck would have demonstrated the spoiled nature I explain to my daughters when they seem less appreciative than I want them to be and it would have made me a hypocrite. So, I climbed back into the truck, peered out at the beautiful country and said to Rehse, “Could you please turn up the heat a little,” adding, “Oh, and where did you put those sandwiches?”

Not long after I’d finished my sandwich we spotted another “cull buck” this one headed into a deep draw. We got out of the truck and hiked a mile or so along a ridge, peering into the draw where we thought the animal would be. Alas, we couldn’t locate it and headed back to the truck for some coffee. Halfway there the buck appeared on an adjacent hillside and that’s when the camera crew rolled into action. The buck was moving left to right. I said, “I won’t have a shot from here,” and so the whole operation scrambled 10 yards across a slope to where I gained a better view. Suddenly, I saw the buck move out of some brush, following two does. I said, “I have a shot,” but the cameraman said, “You can’t shoot. I’m not on him.” The cameraman moved to the other side of me and said, “Ok, we’re ready,” but now the buck was partially obscured and I didn’t want to take the shot. Then the buck moved into an opening, just 10 yards from the next patch of timber and the fellows said, “You better take him now. This is the shot. Right now.” I didn’t answer, but I kept the crosshairs on the buck. Unfortunately, there was a doe behind the buck and I didn’t want to take a shot and chance wounding her … especially in front of the camera. Again the fellows hissed, “That’s the shot. You’ll need to shoot now.” The buck was now two or three steps from the timber and would be lost for sure if I couldn’t take the shot. And then, as if planned, the buck stopped, the doe tromped out of the way, and just as the buck made a move for the timber I squeezed the trigger. The buck leaped into the forest and I crossed my fingers.

With the cameras rolling Coogan asked, “How did the shot feel?” I said, “Good, but I’m not going to be sure until we get down there.”
We got down there about a half-hour later and there was the “cull buck” piled up on a log, just 20 yards from where we’d last seen him. The antlers were deep chocolate brown, measured 21 inches high, 21 inches wide, with three points on each side and a bonus brow tine on the right antler. The second best buck I’d ever taken.

After I’d notched the date and taped a tag to that deer’s antler I started toward the animal, but Coogan stopped me. I was thinking, now the fun is over and the work begins. That’s when Rehse took over and in a few minutes my buck was dressed, dragged, and placed in the back of the rig, ready for a ride back to the lodge where it would hang in a cool garage and be prepared for my trip home.

That evening, just before dark, Coogan made a nice 200-yard shot on a four-by-four trophy mule deer. Later we drank wine, toasted those animals, and ate steaks around the massive dining room table. I described those tough hunts in the Cascades to Coogan and told about the time when a friend and I packed a big buck mule deer out of the mountains in the dark and had to spend most of the time sliding on our rears so that we wouldn’t fall off a cliff. On the way home we stopped at a store. I was too sore to move so my friend went in. Just as he was opening the door I saw that the bottom had worn off his jeans and underwear; he was too numb to notice. But, when he got back in the truck, after the female clerk noted his dilemma with a smirk, he said, “Thomas, you knew. You knew didn’t you.”

Just before Coogan and I took our conversation from the table to the living room he said, “So, would you choose to hunt that way or how we hunted the past couple days?”

Seriously, I wouldn’t trade those hard-core high-mountain mule deer hunting memories for anything, but there is something to be said about king-size beds, prepared meals, heaters in a truck, televised football games and a guide who does the gruntwork. I smiled and said, “I’ve done the Cascades. I could get used to this. Do you need a co-host?”